Microsoft Convergence 2015 lives up to its name

Microsoft begins to align businesses and business units with each other and the 21st century. Paul Greenberg scores the conference and assesses the company's direction.

I never thought that I would talk about this just south of $100 billion company taking baby steps - a GIGANTIC baby - but that's exactly what Microsoft is doing. Bear with me and we'll run through this.

I'm going to go through two things here. We will start with an event scorecard that is designed to give you an idea of the event itself. I'm not going to repeat myself on what it is or how it works. For that, read my Adobe post of last week, which has a complete explanation. Suffice to say, it is very hard to develop and manage a large event with all the moving pieces and conflicting interests that have to be satisfied. When I do this scorecard, even a bad grade on a particular thing is done with a great deal of respect because of the difficulty of doing things right with an event. I only offer my opinion in the hopes that it will help the planners in the following year. Though there are criteria I work from and quantifiable things going on, it's still an opinion.

After that, my assessment of the direction of the company as reflected by the conference, the meetings, the announcements, the sentiment and the conversations. But let's go with the scorecard first.

Without further ado....

The Microsoft Convergence 2015 scorecard

Category Grade Notes
Keynotes (Content) B+ The Microsoft Dynamics content that this conference usually focuses on, had several bigger themes than in the past. The conference itself is now the all business users conference and thus the messages focused on clearly on the reinvention of Microsoft itself, the transformation of the marketplace, and the need to focus around customer engagement. I'll discuss the messaging etc. below in the analysis, but they were dominant themes that were clearly presented and provided at least quasi-visionary and practical foci for the audience and they set the stage pretty well for the conference and the upcoming direction for Microsoft. It only downside was that it tended to be a bit awkward and disconnected from presentation to presentation, though both main presenters Satya Nadella, and Kirill Tatarinov did a good job of keeping focused and on point and did not go overboard either.
Keynotes (Presentation) C+ Arguably one of the weakest parts of the conference. This is where the environment and feel of the conference is set. It is how the themes of the keynotes are supported. The backup material -starting with a far too loud, terrible Atlanta pop group (back for a second year if I'm correct) did a deafening Taylor Swift number to an audience that was, let's just say, considerably older on the average than Taylor Swift, the customer and other supporting videos, the lighting, the demos of the products (and how well they are integrated on the stage), the accouterments and accessories to the content of the keynote were bland at best and paled by comparison to the content itself. The one exceptional spot was the demo by Julia White ( please see the video on Vinnie Mirchandani's brilliant New Florence, New Renaissance blog site) where the Office365 GM showed an excellent integration of multiple Microsoft business products with CRM as the centerpiece. But it was the only exceptional spot. The weak overall presentation set the tone and created an uneven and awkward environment and made the kickoff less focused and exciting than it could and should have been.
Tracks/General Sessions A Very strong content that covered all the bases needed for the technical, the line of business, the industry-specific and the conceptual. A great mix of Microsoft, partner, customer and analyst presenters. The only reason it didn't get an A+ is that the attendees weren't informed that the conference was more than just the Dynamics conference this year, but included Office365, SharePoint, etc. Thus the sessions that focused on that were a bit of a surprise to many of the attendees. But all in all superbly covered.
Analyst/Press Relations A- As always, Microsoft handled this extremely well. What made this particularly notable was that it was a new team of Waggoner Edstrom folks luckily anchored by the wonderful Ann Goldman and always attentive Umran Hasan. That stability helped make sure that the analysts and press were handled appropriately. What made it even better is that they treated the press and analysts as a single entity which in the age of influencers is the wisest possible approach. The only thing that didn't quite jell was several occasions that things that needed to be done in a timely fashion didn't quite get done. Otherwise perfect.
Food (VIP) B The food offerings were solid, stable, nothing too fancy. There was enough to eat. Not a lot of vegetarian, special diet options though could make do. Restaurant excursions were exceptional all around.
Food (General Session) C+ Various attendees complained about the food choices and the quality of the food though all in all seemed pedestrian. Snacks in the interim periods between meals were coffee, drinks, not very tasty items.
Exhibition Hall B This was a mixed bag. The array of partners there was impressive and certainly representative of an ecosystem with a combination of consulting partners, technology partners, ISVs, strategic partners, big and small and a large number. On the other hand, to get to the exhibition hall was not easy at the tail end of one of the convention center buildings with almost no signage and a rather long hall trek that was eerily empty until you got to the Exhibition Hall. The hall itself had ample aisle room for moving around but the booths were laid out in a way that often made it hard to find specific partners. All in all significant representation of partners to the good, poor logistics, layout to the downside.
Crowd Energy B- This was a Microsoft crowd that was professionally enthused if I were to characterize their level of involvement, passion and energy. They weren't wild and fan boy like but they clearly were committed to Microsoft and made that clear by their involvement. Interestingly their attention was deeper and more involved in the sessions than in the keynotes. Though that could have something to do with the lack of presentation at the keynote. The session interest was high and the question level at the various sessions was a good indicator of that. Also, few if any, left the sessions as they progressed.
Ambiance B- The crowd control at the convention center wasn't too good - with poor traffic control at the escalators in particular and slow movement through the hallways. The staff managing it however, were friendly and actually cheerful which helped the ambiance of the conference. The swag for the conference, which often gets people invested a bit more in the excitement (ambiance) was very poor, with a small laptop like case and a hard portable beverage bottle ( see Adobe for the polar opposite of this). All in all, though, it was a relatively calm but professional ambiance that worked for the show for the most part.
OVERALL B Microsoft Convergence is always one of my favorite conferences. While I can't say that this, from their event history, was the best I attended, it still was done well enough, the AR/PR teams were as always terrific and the content excellent enough to leave a good feeling and to initiate, if somewhat awkwardly, the themes of reinvention and engagement that they wanted to get across to the 12,000 attendees and over the next year or so. Things to fix for next year? Sure. But a good solid job.

Overview

It's funny, but for the first time, I realized, at least for this year, what a good name "Convergence" is for the Microsoft conference, because, at multiple levels this is precisely what they are trying to do.

Since the ascension of Satya Nadella as CEO of Microsoft, the change in direction at Microsoft has been, let's just say, close to profound. This is a company that, unlike many others claiming it, is reinventing itself, but without losing its core businesses, though the emphasis and the integration of those businesses is shifting.

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For example, IBM announced about four years ago at IBM Connect a.k.a. Lotusphere, that they were reinventing themselves into a social business that would empower all 400,000 employees of the company. Before they got very far, social business had already become a passé phase of the overall business transformation that we continue to go through today and IBM's big fanfare fizzled out and to be entirely honest, I have no idea how the process is continuing there. We lost them at "hello."

While IBM's apparently abortive effort was noble to say the least, but still seems to have either failed or at least shrunk from the spotlight, Microsoft's is up front and personal(ized). It is a big transformation and a big deal for Microsoft. They have been one of the few companies that is in a position to develop an ecosystem that enables lives end to end via its technology offering, something I have repeatedly and probably maddeningly been reminding them and you for the last eight years or so. Proof? See this 2007 post. And, most recently, February 2015 in fact, this post. But that is now something that needs to be more than a good idea, but a front and center focus of their business. They are doing precisely that - and it is possible that it will be very, very effective.

Let's dive in on that.

Themes

Microsoft is a self-aware company and from the moment that Convergence began as the Microsoft Business Applications Conference, rather than the Microsoft Dynamics Business conference, it was clear something was in the air. They had changed the name and the content of Convergence for the first time in my memory. What was up? It turns out that what was being called reinvention was in the winds - a reinvention of the entire company with central themes to be in conjunction with, at least at this conference, with 21st century business practice.

However, actually, if you think about it, it wasn't truly reinvention, but alignment. Microsoft was aligning its technology ecosystem and messaging with what it actually was always potentially able to do and to do that within the realm of contemporary business. This is really Microsoft aligning its business model, its technology stack, its messaging and its overall ecosystem with 21st century business practice, process, consumer and business buying habits, and real life outcomes.

This might seem like a glib effort to just do some more interesting and sophisticated advertising and messaging but in reality, it is a genuine alignment of the company. Despite the overall weak presentation around the otherwise strong content, the demo of a 3D printing use case by Julia White, Office Products Division General Manager, was a great example of a company thinking in terms of an overall ecosystem that was focused on providing outcomes to companies and users (not just companies - to overemphasize the point). It showed how an integrated Dynamics CRM, Office365, Skype for Business (formerly Lync), Cortana, a Surface Hub display, Delve (an internal, customizable, personalized activity feed), both Windows phone and iPhones and the predictive pipeline analytics from Insidesales.com could support outcomes organized around a goal. The way it should be. All running, of course, in the cloud on Azure.

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So, I would suggest that, while it isn't as sexy as reinvention, alignment and integration were the true core themes of Microsoft Convergence. Microsoft is aligning itself with the vision and mission it had the potential to achieve for at least eight years and maybe longer. They are aligning their business to the 21st century way of doing business. They are aligning their portfolio with their notion of ecosystem - one that they've had for more than a decade - and they are integrating their products and services to work within that ecosystem to achieve business outcomes from B2C to B2B, from consumer to c-suite buyer.

That part was crystal clear to me.

That leaves one other major theme that seemed to underlie the entire conference. That would be customer engagement - arguably my favorite two words when it comes to business - at least. My favorite two words when it comes to personal life are Yvonne Greenberg. That would be my wife of 33 years. But customer engagement will do in business.

Here, it is a mixed bag for Microsoft. They are the second company to come out in a major way to focus around customer engagement. The first was SAP, who transformed their messaging about a year and a half ago from customer experience to customer engagement and then took a step back by adding "and commerce" to the end of the customer engagement message, diminishing it a bit to being something far more transactional than it actually is. More on that another time though. SAP still has the honor of being the first to market with the purer (and more appropriate) message. But Microsoft is pushing it in a big way and it permeated the entire conference as a key theme. It was a high touch focus of both Satya Nadella and even more so Kirill Tatarinov at Convergence and as a theme effectively transmitted by the speakers.

It is a key theme and one that will be a key focus of business for the next decade. For example, last July McKinsey did this survey on digital innovation at companies and found that the number one reason for interest in innovation and the number one concern of companies that responded to the survey was customer engagement. This has been supported one way or the other by multiple other surveys, interviews, and the clear transformation of the market and the messages in the market, as customer engagement becomes an increasingly dominant concern and a more strategic element of effort by companies around the globe.

In fact, I find it so dominant, that you will see a piece later this year on the differences between a customer centric company and a customer engaged company - and that will make it into the book I'm writing on the subject (Name: "The Commonwealth of Self Interest" Harvard Business Press, 2016. Thank you for indulging the plug). The strategy and programs and technologies for customer engagement are so important that being "customer engaged" is a serious step up from just being "customer-centric" - and we are not speaking semantics and marketing here. Again, hang in there, more to come.

To their credit, this year, they spoke of the integration of systems of record with systems of engagement rather than as they said once in the past that systems of record would be replaced by systems of engagement. But brilliant fellows (both literally and by title) like Michael Ehrenberg get stuff like that fixed. Microsoft is very lucky to have dudes like that there.

But after this, it gets dicey - and, a tad awkward.

The problem Microsoft had was that while it was easy to speak to it, it was a lot harder to show a commitment to transforming themselves to an engagement technology focused company. For example, there was no discussion around the alignment of the product portfolio to support engagement, even though from the standpoint of an ecosystem, they have the relationships with Thunderhead, and the new one with InsideSales and several others including one very important product announcement made by CRM tech god Bob Stutz on the deeper integration of Parature (see below) that support that possibility. They also have the infrastructure with Azure. They have the retooled products and the retooled POV around Office 365 as not just a set of new productivity tools, but a unified communications hub that incorporates a lot of their products and is integrated with a lot of third party products e.g. Salesforce etc. To that end, even Salesforce just announced Salesforce for Outlook. Three years ago, who'd a thunk it?

So there are things going on at Microsoft that reflect the transformation and the focus toward engagement, but Microsoft seems holistically unaware, even if - as is obvious - they know that, piece by piece, each of these things are going on. That showed in that while they repeated, wisely, the customer engagement theme, it seemed somewhat disconnected from the whole of the conference and didn't have either the depth or underlying consistency of the "reinvention" a.k.a. alignment message that was also pre-eminent.

What that led to was some exciting product announcements, including a very ambitious CRM roadmap. The upside is that there are some genuinely valuable and interesting products afoot, but the downside is that they aren't interwoven into the ecosystem story and thus, while somewhat engagement focused, tend to be a bit of all over the map (though to be fair, not horribly so). But there is an interesting possible consequence.

Let's take a look at some of them. This isn't designed to be a deep dive into all the products in the roadmap.

Product Announcements

What a lot of people "out there" don't realize is how successful Microsoft's CRM products have been. They have had growth in double digits for 42 consecutive quarters. They have deep penetration into a number of vertical industries including sports, media, entertainment and public sector. They are seen as the chief rival to Salesforce. They have made a small number of acquisitions (though they could do a lot better here) that have substantially filled out the holes in their ecosystem - the most prominent being Parature at the end of 2013. They have re-architected the entire CRM product from top to bottom under Bob Stutz's leadership and Jujhar Singh's product teams. They have been on the fastest trajectory when it comes to increasing industry credibility of any of the vendors out there.

No slouches.

The Microsoft CRM roadmap has a number of ambitious advances - several which are designed to future-proof Microsoft. I would venture to say (though this is just my opinion) that this is because they are looking to lead, not lag - or as Anthony Lye (currently President and CEO of HotSchedules) used to call it, "fast followers."

But customers over the next year or so, aren't going to be requesting it or using it beyond edge cases. But that leaves Microsoft with a gap that they have to fill. That is the part of the market which involves getting people to want to use it - and that means thought leadership in those areas - something that Microsoft is notoriously poor at (in my eyes at least). That means, not relying on people like me - analysts, influencers, journalists, external thought leaders, though there are some things to do here, but instead relying on themselves - generating the content they have.

One practical and immediate addition is the continued excellent integration of Parature into the service offerings, especially around knowledge management - one of Parature's great advantages over many in the industry. The ability to provide knowledge management out of the customer service box is there already. The thought leadership and the interest is also there - at least externally. Witness Esteban Kolsky's presentation on knowledge management and customer service at Microsoft Convergence. This is a great addition to the Microsoft portfolio and goes to the heart of a "now" trend - the desire for web self-service when it comes to engaging at level of service interactions and more generally self-management of customer's engagement. Ahhhh.

But there is a lot more - a LOT more. For example, showing consistency with the alignment they are undergoing and their always intelligent thinking around ecosystems, they are doing a much stronger integration with Office 365, Exchange, PowerBI, Cortana, Skype for Business and SharePoint with Dynamics CRM. This is a distinct departure from the past where all of this was either separate or weakly integrated. For example, in the past, the initial Skype integration with CRM put the user in a position where if he/she tried to make a call from inside the CRM application, the Skype application would open up outside of the CRM application. Ugh. Who wanted that? It should have been native and embedded and the call made without leaving CRM. Now it is.

One of the best new features coming in Spring 2015 takes advantage of both mobile applications and social communication with a "consistent experience across all devices and environments" social center. This is really a collaboration center more than a social listening post. The idea is that you can, via activity streams, etc. foster collaboration among the sales, marketing and customer service departments, and effect engagement with external social networks and communities (internal and external). Spiffy and valuable and in conjunction with those business trends that have stickiness such as the alignment of sales and marketing that has become a major concern and effort by businesses worldwide.

They are also adding a vast number of pieces of an engagement suite like surveys, much deeper knowledge management capabilities with immediate search results, sentiment analysis and more extensive engagement focused analytics - in fact, a series of applications, capabilities, connectors and tools that will make their offering more engagement focused than it has ever been.

I have a concern here, though, and it's that this is all supposed to be released in the Spring release - and I only touched on the total amount of "stuff" that's being released. It is an incredibly ambitious and deeply complex series of technology improvements that - with Azure binding it as the infrastructural platform - will be a major achievement when pulled off.

Some of it - like the social center, the integrations with at least Office 365 etc. - has immediate and obvious uses. Some of it - like investing in new data types for the platform - is important but in the weeds. Some of it - like the simplifying of the deployment of CRM on Azure - still needs the value proposition around it - e.g. "why should I deploy it on Azure? I don't have to, do I?" Some of it - like the "consistent engagement framework" which effectively allows you to take interaction data from whatever source, collect it, qualify it and associate with a transactional source (e.g SFA opportunity) - needs thought leadership around it.

All in all, this is the most ambitious release that I've ever seen in CRM and there is a lot that has to be done around and with it for it to be fully valuable to Microsoft.

The biggest component for them - because it puts them in position to actually sustain their move toward customer engagement and still retain their classic CRM functionality - is actually thought leadership. People like me are trying to provide that (I say not really humbly, but pretend humbly) to the industry. But this is one of those cases where releasing as much as they are releasing in the context of their company "reinvention" requires them to provide thought leadership from within - something that looks like this:

  1. What is the corporate narrative?
  2. Given that, what is the transition from CRM to SCRM to engagement for Microsoft mean?
  3. Given that, what are the use cases for the deployments of these new capabilities.
  4. Tell me some customer stories.
  5. Be creative in the presentation so that it resonates with the audience. I don't want a technical discussion of the value, I want something outcomes based and goal oriented. I have objectives. I need outcomes of a specific kind to achieve that objective. How does this get me there?

Without that narrative, this big release of LOTS of big stuff becomes a release of LOTS of big stuff that would just be too much for me to try to sort out if I were a customer or prospect looking at it. But with the right content and broadcasting, this can put Microsoft squarely on point with its own theme around customer engagement and with the tendencies among buyers in the marketplace. But people (and you know this is true) need stories to help them process things. That's the way our heads work. Take some time and reread this great post from Alan Berkson on the corporate narrative. It's a great story.

My thinking

Convergence 2015 might have been a seminal conference for Microsoft. We heard about reinvention and customer engagement, but the dominant actual theme was alignment. In a nutshell, they aligned their business applications as a whole with their existing ecosystem in a way that reflects both a real maturation of the company and a realization that they are girding up for the long haul when it comes to the battle for 21st century business.

The irony in this is that they had this in place all along when it came to the assets available and the thinking around ecosystems but they hadn't ever coalesced (converged) the two. They are still early though when it comes to that selfsame alignment around the dominant theme for customer facing activity for the next several years - customer engagement. They have the message, but they don't have the requisite other pieces in position with the message. That's their next bit of business. Organize the portfolio, build a cohesive version and then view of their engagement ecosystem, define the thought leadership around it and pull the partners needed, and make the acquisitions necessary to become a leading force around the technology for engagement for the near future.

The time is now, the means are there, but the work still has to be done.

Helluva start though.

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